Scotland’s grim reputation for abnormally high drug fatalities has become embedded in the public consciousness over the past year. The fact that fake benzodiazepines (‘street valium’) can be procured for 50p a pill on the streets of Dundee and Glasgow is now common knowledge, as is Scotland’s unenviable place at the top of Europe’s drug deaths league table. However, belated attention to this crisis should not allow signs of another to slip below the radar. New figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS) show a 17 per cent surge in alcohol-specific deaths between 2019 and 2020, a rise from 1,020 to 1,190 in the space of 12 months, what NRS terms ‘a marked increase’.
At first glance, these statistics appear to confirm fears about the impact of lockdowns on mental well-being, though NRS notes a slight decrease in suicides over the same period. It is certainly feasible that confining the population largely to their homes for extended periods of time contributed to the highest annual alcohol-related death rate since 2008. If these numbers do indeed represent the human cost of lockdowns, they are unlikely to be the last of their kind.
For the Scottish Government, the growth in alcohol-related deaths is especially unwelcome, coming as it does three years into the SNP’s flagship policy of minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol. Introduced in May 2018 after a protracted legal battle, MUP currently stands at 50p per unit and the Nationalists have not been shy about heralding any favourable trend as proof of the policy’s success.
SNP MSPs have previously seized on data indicating fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions or alcohol-specific deaths to claim ‘minimum unit pricing is already saving lives’. Then Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman said a fall in alcohol sales in 2018 showed ‘a promising start following our world-leading action to introduce minimum unit pricing’ and indicated ‘we are moving in the right direction’.
In June, public health minister Maree Todd touted